What’s the most interesting thing you have found tucked away in storage? Back in 1998, Dr. Timothy Tackett, now history professor emeritus at University of California Irvine, was in Watsonville, California helping his mother pack for a move to Washington State when he discovered a winter count tucked in the bottom of a trunk, reports the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
What is a winter count? According to the Smithsonian Institution, they are “histories or calendars in which events are recorded by pictures, with one picture for each year.” They are called waniyetu wowapi by the Lakota.
The winter count found in the trunk dates as far back as 1752, and the Daily Bulletin reports that one picture on it shows the Leonid meteor shower that occurred on November 12, 1833. Using that experts can count forward and back determining what year the other drawings were made.
“One of the curious—and historically fortunate—details revealed by this record is that it contains no mention of the smallpox epidemic of 1781-82, suggesting that this small band of Sioux, at least, managed to escape the contagion which destroyed fully half of all the Indian population of North America,” wrote Native American art authority Michael Cowdrey, according to the Daily Bulletin.
Cowdrey examined the winter count after it was discovered, and noted that the last pictograph was drawn about a year before the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
These pictographs show yearly events of the tribe. Note it also heralded the arrival of whites to the area.
So, how did the historically significant winter count end up in a trunk belonging to Tackett’s mother? The Daily Bulletin explains that his aunt Myrtle and her husband John Alvin Anderson lived in South Dakota where they ran a general store on the Rosebud Reservation. Anderson would often accept items in payment for goods.
Tackett’s family had lived in Pomona, Ontario and Upland—all in California—before moving further north. And that trunk, once belonging to Aunt Myrtle, made the journey.
Upon finding the winter count, Tackett showed it to Cowdrey, a colleague of his. According to the Daily Bulletin, researchers agree that the first 122 years of drawings were done by one person, who then—around 1870-1871—copied them from the original hide onto muslin. This was around the time when the Lakota were forcibly moved onto the Rosebud Reservation and had access to materials like muslin.
“The people whose history this document records appear to have a sudden concern for their posterity,” Cowdrey wrote to Tackett in 1999, reports the Daily Bulletin. “Up until this history ... (it) was maintained on an animal skin. Conscious of the changes they could see occurring around them, that single precious record was duplicated on muslin—possibly in several copies—to be maintained by the sons, or other close relatives of the Keeper.”
The count is now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.